Author: Sharon Terlep
Technology lets companies see how badly they can treat consumers, right up until the moment they bolt.
In corporate parlance, it’s called the “breakpoint.” It’s how far customers can be pushed before their heads explode.
From long waits at the airport to rude store clerks to ineffective helplines, shoddy customer service is a universal frustration. Today, companies crunch data and use artificial intelligence to determine exactly how angry a customer has to be to bolt. Many are walking right up to that line.
Technologies can track how long a customer will wait for a human to answer the phone and how many ads they will tolerate. They can monitor the tone of a customer’s voice. Companies know what steps they must take to keep shoppers loyal—and which they can skip.
This knowledge has contributed to a decline in how customers are treated, say analysts, consultants and former executives. A smaller number make the counter case: that companies are using their better read to improve the customer experience.
“There is more data available on just how disgruntled someone can be,” said Megan Burns, CEO of consulting company Experience Enterprises.
Sally Robey reached her breakpoint with AT&T Inc. after six calls and a collective four hours on the phone with customer-service agents over the price of an unlimited phone plan. “It’s like they have a stranglehold on us,” said Ms. Robey, who had been an AT&T customer for 30 years when she decided she was done.
Dogged by overage fees on her family’s seven-phone wireless plan, Ms. Robey, a mother of four from Wilmette, Ill., set out to get a plan with unlimited data. An AT&T cable subscriber and customer since 1988, she eventually got a better deal from Verizon Communications Inc. and returned to AT&T to see if it would match the rates. AT&T declined.
“I said, ‘This is ridiculous, you’re not doing anything to keep us,’” Ms. Robey said. The agent, she said, told her: “No, there’s nothing I can do.”
It was only when Ms. Robey was in the act of switching phone numbers to Verizon from AT&T that the wireless carrier buckled, she said.
“Then they were, like, ‘Oh, we want to keep you.’ ” She ended up staying because the company gave her what she wanted right before she was about to leave.
An AT&T spokeswoman declined to comment on Ms. Robey’s situation but said the company contacted her on the matter.
The telecom giant is among the companies employing artificial intelligence to gauge customers’ behavior patterns and personalities to pair them with customer-service agents.
“Matching the right agent to customers improves the likelihood of a positive outcome, measured by resolution rate and satisfaction scores,” an AT&T spokeswoman said. The company declined to comment further.
The best and worst industries for customer satisfaction according to the American Customer Satisfaction Index.
Televisions and video players
Personal care and cleaning products
Automobiles and light vehicles
42: Internet social media
43: Fixed-line telephone services
44: Video-on-demand services
45: Internet service providers
46: Subscription television services
Some companies now equip call centers with software that analyzes a caller’s tone of voice and pace of speech to determine how upset the person is. Angrier callers get routed to agents skilled at de-escalating conflict, who are in turn warned in advance.
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